In their own words: Life in the G League

By Andrew D

January 06, 2023

NBA G League

The concept that eventually morphed into the NBA G League first started life as the National Basketball Development League (NBDL) in 2001. It included 8 franchises in 5 Southeastern states. Namely:

  • Alabama

  • Georgia

  • North & South Carolina

  • Virginia

After 4 years, David Stern (then NBA commissioner) renamed it the ‘NBA Development League’ (NBA D-League) and intended for it to grow into a working minor league for the NBA itself. He had seen the way that the ‘feeder’ system operates in other sports like Major League Baseball, and wanted the same vision for the NBA. 

G League betting

22 years later and that vision has become the one that we see today

The National Basketball Association G League is, somewhat predictably named after a corporate product. 

You know then one: PepsiCo’s great health scam, 'Gatorade’. The one that an expensive, comprehensive marketing onslaught managed to convince bovine America that it had overwhelming health benefits? That it was ok to drink as much of it as you like without fear of the consequences? Yes, that Gatorade. The one that has 56 grams of sugar in a 32oz (1.064 litre) bottle? That’s ma boy!

‘But it’s good for when you’ve been exercising right’? Haha ok then. ‘Cos that’s when most people drink it, of course. Plenty of salt (450mg per litre) in there to compensate for the insane amount you sweated out. Great workout yeah? Good to stay hydrated and get some electrolytes in after a marathon Call of Duty sesh.

The colours are shown to potentially increase your chances of getting cancer. But it’s awesome yeah? Pfff. It doesn’t even taste good

Ok rant over. 

26 NBA teams now have their own G League club. One that is either fully owned by the franchise or affiliated to them alone. It took a lot of time and work, but perceptions of the G League are finally coming around too. 

It used to be dreaded by players who saw it as a form of punishment for playing poorly or having a bad attitude. Although that may still be the case sometimes, it is now totally normal for players to spend some time honing their craft in the G League

It is entirely standard for an NBA team to have G League veterans on its roster

In fact, according to the NBA, there are 234 active NBA players who have spent time in the G League. That’s 47% of all players. So, yes. It is normal now.

But what is it actually like to coach and play in the G League?

It could not be clearer that everyone is hoping for an opportunity to reach (or return to) the NBA, so does that make for a tense, cutthroat environment? Let’s get a view of the G League from those who are involved in it directly.

The G League still pays peanuts when compared to the NBA proper. Consider this: Any G League player now earns a base salary of $37,000. Don’t get us wrong, that’s not the be sneered at. Especially when you consider the average age of the players and the fact that their housing is free. There are plenty of hard-working families who survive on less. But we’re not dealing with a normal situation here. The NBA, and professional sports in general, have skewed our sense of earnings and the value that people have beyond all recognition.

Are these players more important than nurses, sanitation workers, teachers, and scientists? Of course not. Nobody could ever claim that. But they do provide a very serious role in the balance and harmony of our societies. Like it or not, we humans are a tribal bunch. We want to show our superiority over our neighbours and display our prowess whenever we can. Thankfully, in most cases, this no longer involves attacking each other and stealing stuff. But we clearly need an outlet for this urge as a species.

And sports are it

Do some imbeciles take things too far and sully the experience for others? Of course. Just look at groups of primal, hammered drunk England fans shouting abuse at anyone unfortunate enough to get near them and fighting when they travel. Embarrassing. But generally, the role is an important one. Consider then, that an NBA rookie is guaranteed a minimum salary of just over one million dollars. It rises to 1.8 after 2 years! Are they worthy of that much? Again, this is purely subjective. But the fact remains that stepping from the G League to the NBA guarantees a salary increase of 27 times! 

So, the G League is not the place to be if you want to get rich

But neither is it the road to the poor house 

There is also another angle to consider. Because their playing season is only five months long, G League players can ply their trade elsewhere for 7 months of the year. Taking up lucrative overseas offers. Playing in the Big 3, or entering basketball tournaments.

“The way that the league has progressed since I played in it during the 2005-06 season is incredible. Back then, there were A contracts, B contracts and C contracts. I was on a C contract, so I made $12,000 for the whole season. That was definitely an adventure. My friends at Cornell would joke with me all the time because when you’re at an Ivy League school, people make a big deal about your starting salary. My friends would say, ‘You must have the worst starting salary of any Ivy League graduate ever! Jeez, you’d make more working at McDonald’s!’ They eventually got rid of the C-level contracts because that was cruel and unusual punishment to some degree (laughs). Also, back then, you didn’t get paid if you were an inactive player. That was really tough because you would be giving everything you had to the team and then not get paid just because you were inactive. They fixed that, which is great. Now, things are so much better. This past season, players were either on an A contract that paid $28,000 or a B contract that paid $26,000. Next year, everyone will be at $35,000. Some people still stop at that number, but guys are making $7,000 per month and their housing is paid for so you can sort of factor that in too. They’re saving, say, $1,000 per month on housing. And on the road, they get a per diem of $50 each day for meals. This upcoming season, I think we’ll see the best talent pool the G League has ever had due to the salary increase. I think we’ll see some guys turn down fairly lucrative 10-month deals overseas and instead sign a five-month G League deal, which is a bit more attractive now, to chase their NBA dream. It’s a very exciting time to be a part of the league!”

Northern Arizona Suns head coach Cody Toppert

There seems to be a general consensus among G League players, both past and present, that the salaries in the G League are moving in the right direction. But that it’s still not nearly enough. The fact remains that the NBA is one of the richest, most attractive sporting entities in the world.

There is no lack of cold, hard cash sloshing around in basketball

In fact, there is a vast, deep ocean of it. Not all of it is clean enough to pass Environmental Protection Agency standards if you know what we mean?

But that’s another story...

Read about that NBA Betting Scandal here. It’s a doozy. 

Image Courtesy of Alamy
Despite these meagres (by comparison) salaries, the G League still manages to attract a number of impressive players, both young and old.

“I definitely think the G League talent pool is underrated; there are first-round picks, even lottery picks, mixed in with assignment guys and former pros who have already had a long career in the NBA but now they’re trying to make a comeback through the G League. In my years in the G League, I got to play against everyone from Baron Davis to Nate Robinson to Brandon Jennings to Jeremy Pargo to Jordan Crawford. The talent level is definitely high. And down here, everybody is hungry. Everybody is trying to get out of the G League, so the competition is intense for those NBA spots. There are zero nights off when you’re in the G League.”

Golden State Warriors point guard Quinn Cook

Certain players who have competed on both sides of the fence insist that there is very little actual difference between the two leagues when it comes to the level of fitness, skill, and overall competition.

“In terms of the talent, if you take away the top [stars] in the NBA, you really can’t tell the difference between the two leagues. If you remove the top players from the NBA, you can’t tell me there’s a big difference between the two leagues. Go watch the G League games every day and you’ll see that five or six players are dropping 20-plus points, every team will be hitting a lot of threes, the players are driving really hard to the basket, the game is fast – it’s up and down – and everybody is a threat to score. It’s fun, just like the NBA. It was so much fun to go down there and just hoop. If you go play in a G League game right now, you’ll play against someone who can hit eight or nine three-pointers in a game, the style of play will be just like the NBA and it’s going to be an exciting game. There’s so much talent in the G League.”

Former G Leaguer and, most recently New Orleans Pelicans guard, Jordan Crawford

Crawford is a great example of a veteran player who spent time in the G League and used it to make a comeback to the NBA. He had previously suited up for the Atlanta Hawks (Go Hawks!), the Washington Wizards, Boston Celtics, Golden State Warriors before he found himself without a team in 2014. 2 seasons in the G League and he was back as guard for the New Orleans Pelicans.

He proved that he had the desire and the ability to return

He showcased his talents and dedication in the G League and found his way back to the NBA. And he is not alone.

Some others who made similar journeys are:

  • Gerald Green 

  • Mike James

  • Brandon Jennings

  • James Johnson 

  • Shaun Livingston 

  • Jamaal Tinsley

Having a depth of veteran talent on show doesn't hurt the G League either. It brings attention to games and teams that they might otherwise not have received. They show audiences and scouts that they can still cut it at a high level. They are able to display their levels of conditioning and prove that they will do whatever it takes to get back to the NBA.

And it works...

“I don’t think the G League talent level gets the amount of respect that it deserves. People automatically say that the ACB in Spain in the second-best league in the world, but I don’t know… There’s so much talent in the G League that it’s hard to say that. I saw a recent article ranking the different leagues and they had the NBA at No. 1, the ACB at No. 2 and Euroleague at No. 3 or something like that. The G League wasn’t even in the top 10. That doesn’t make sense. It’s no coincidence that G League guys keep shining when they get an opportunity! Look at Quinn Cook. If Steph Curry never gets hurt, Quinn doesn’t get this playing time and people would still think, ‘Oh, he’s just a G League guy.’ Look at Shaquille Harrison, who I played with the last two seasons. He was viewed as ‘a G League guy,’ but then Isaiah Canaan gets hurt, and Shaq plays so well in the NBA that he signs a multi-year deal with the Suns. Now, if we took a player from Spain and put him in Quinn’s spot, filling in for Steph Curry, would he be better? Would he even be as productive as Quinn? That’s my argument. G League guys keep showing what they can do when given a chance. Of the big four pro sports, the NBA has the least amount of roster spots and that leads to great players in the G League. Our league has way more talent than people give it credit for and it’s a way more competitive league than people acknowledge.”

Five-year G League veteran Xavier Silas

“The funny thing was that when it was called the D-League, I felt like a lot of people didn’t understand that the ‘D’ stood for development. They’d think of a D-grade in school, so it sort of did the talent level a disservice. In reality, the talent is incredible in this league. I think I’ve now coached six McDonald’s All-Americans at this level. There are a lot of fans who wonder what happened to their favorite college stars. Well, many of them are here in the G League! I don’t think there’s any question that the G League is the second-most athletic league in the world behind only the NBA, and the quality of basketball is rising rapidly too.”

Coach Cody Toppert

“There are so many success stories now – the guys like Jeremy Lin, Hassan Whiteside, Jonathon Simmons – and it’s become more and more normal for NBA players to have G League experience. It’s becoming clear that talent can translate from the G League to the NBA pretty easily, especially now that you’re playing in the same system with the G League affiliate as you are with the NBA team so you’re comfortable when you make the transition. The style of play in each league is so similar too. People don’t realize that it’s a true minor league that does a great job of developing its players. It’s just as much a minor league as AAA is for Major League Baseball, as far as being able to work on your game. The coaches are amazing and they’re always there to help you. They’ll help you go as far as you want to go in terms of your development. They’re going to push you and help you as you chase your dream.”

Three-year NBA veteran and former G Leaguer Willie Reed

The G League does not just help players to develop

Since its inception, almost 80 coaches have been hired by NBA teams

5 of them went all the way to become head coaches. And the numbers are rising exponentially. Why wouldn’t they? You’ve got a huge pool of talented individuals, competing ferociously to be noticed. Aiming to reach the top of their game and showcase their talents. It could not be a better scenario for NBA franchises in a way. Gift-wrapped players and coaches with experience who are ready to go. They have maintained their fitness and are clearly hungry to play in the big league. It’s a win-win situation if you look at it that way.

“This season, my team had five call-ups and played 32 different starting line-ups in 50 games. And now, Team USA can rob you of your best players too! I’m out here trying to win games, but Team USA took Xavier Silas from us. There are a number of ways you can lose your players; it’s not just call-ups. It’s incredibly hard to maintain any kind of continuity and chemistry under those circumstances. All you can do is create an environment where the teaching supersedes everything, build really strong habits as a team and make sure everyone has a next-man-up mentality. In the G League, it’s not an exaggeration to say that a player may go from inactive and unhappy with their minutes one day to starting and playing a huge role the very next day. My job is to make sure those guys are ready for their moment when it comes. It’s a challenge, but it’s also really rewarding and I’m learning so much.”

Coach Cody Toppert

“It takes a special kind of person to coach a G League team. You aren’t comfortable at all like some coaches are in college or the pros. It’s just so different than other gigs. You can lose your best players at any time and you have to be ready for that. It’s tough. On game day, you may find out that you won’t have your best guys. Or, on game day, they could suddenly give you a new player or two that have to utilize. You have to be able to adapt. It takes a special coach to do that. If you can coach in the G League, you can coach anywhere. If you can succeed with all those unknowns, you’ll do fine elsewhere.”

G League veteran Xavier Silas

“It’s a phenomenal place of opportunity if you’re willing to pay the price and work hard. So many of the coaches, executives and officials from when I was there, 2009 to 2011, are in the NBA now or have been in the NBA. There’s nothing as pure as the G League. It’s absolutely phenomenal to be around, from the preparation for games to how intensely they work with the players they’re developing. And now that just about every team has their own G League affiliate, it’s amazing to see the synergy that each NBA team has with their G League team. They help each other so much, with the two-way-contract players and the call-ups. The Andre Ingram story was so great and I love that Magic Johnson let him play for the Lakers down the stretch. I got choked up watching him go out there and succeed on that level because he represents what the G League is all about: the dream, the grind and the patience you need as you wait for your opportunity.”

Nancy Lieberman. The first woman female head coach of a professional men’s basketball team (NBA G League’s Texas Legends, 2009). Also worked as an assistant coach in the NBA for the Sacramento Kings and head coach of the Detroit Shock in the WNBA

The NBA uses the G League as a sandbox to test out new concepts

For many years, the NBA has not simply kept one beady eye on the G League and snaffled up any obvious talent. It has been a testing ground for new directives in the sport and the collection of data. Any major change to the rules you see in the NBA has almost certainly been tested out in the G League first.

There was a move to crack down on ‘flopping’ several years ago in the NBA. And rightly so. Disgraceful behaviour. What is this? Soccer? Get a grip. Technical fouls began being issued to pathetic floppers during G League games. Data from this decision was analysed and led to a system where flops are assessed after games using video footage. Players who flop are then liable for fines or suspensions (5 or more flops) Job done.

Other recent G League experiments include testing ways to combat the ‘away-from-play’ fouls that became known as ‘Hack-a-Shaq’ and achieved a satisfactory outcome. They even tried having larger crews of referees, with as many as five at one point. We’ve seen everything from shorter overtime periods and shot-clock adjustments to broadcasting innovations.

Even the infamous microfiber ball that appeared briefly in the NBA during the mid-2000s had been tested on the G League guinea pigs first!

Returns from injury

One important, valuable way that NBA teams are using the G League to their advantage is when it comes to players returning from injury. Just as they do in MLB, NBA teams now use their minor-league squads to help players recover and ease back into games. They might only train and practice with the G Leaguers but it is not uncommon for them to play also.

Players such as:

  • Danilo Gallinari

  • Blake Griffin

  • Brandon Jennings

  • Zach LaVine

  • CJ McCollum

  • Marcus Morris

  • Joakim Noah

  • Nerlens Noel

  • Jabari Parker

  • Tony Parker

  • Rajon Rondo

  • D’Angelo Russell

  • Marcus Smart

  • Milos Teodosic

  • Isaiah Thomas

These players have all rehabbed and returned from injuries by practising and playing with their team’s G League affiliate. This is an obvious thing for franchises to do and is surely something that we will see much more of as it is normalised even further. However...

There’s no guarantee of getting called up

“What do the G League and prison have in common? Everybody wants out! That’s the running joke around here.”

Coach Cody Toppert

Several former G League players have said that it can be immensely frustrating to be stranded in the G League. They feel good about playing basketball at a high level but are left bewildered when no call-up comes.

“It’s definitely tough because, statistically, I feel like I should’ve been called up at least 10 times. I was surprised I didn’t get called up. I had a 33-point, 20-assist game. I had a 45-point triple-double game. I still hold the record down there with the 65-point game. So I’ve done stuff down there that was crazy, but I’ve never gotten a call-up. I don’t know what you need to do to get called up. I don’t think there’s any guaranteed way to get a call-up because I’ve tried! I’ve done every angle. That’s why I’d have a really hard time going back to the G League again because there’s no guarantee and that makes it really difficult. I think the best approach is just go there, have fun, try to win games and enjoy the experience. That’s really big for me right now – the experience – because if you aren’t enjoying what you do, you shouldn’t be doing it.”

Russ Smith, who broke the G League’s single-game scoring record (65 points) in 2016 but did not get called up

“You have to play the right way and know what they want from you in the NBA. I was averaging nearly 20 points, but Boston obviously doesn’t want me to come in and try to score 20 points. They called me up because I’m someone they trusted to go in, make the right plays and do whatever I can to help the team win. You have to understand that and have that be your approach. Nobody in the G League is a Top 30 NBA player. If an NBA team is looking in the G League to call someone up, they aren’t looking at you to replace a Top 30 player by yourself. They’re looking at you to replace one of their role players. That’s just the truth.”

G League veteran Xavier Silas

“If we assume that most of the guys we send to the NBA from the G League will be role players, it’s easier to prepare those players for that opportunity and make sure they understand what they’ll need to do to stick in the NBA. We can discuss exactly what they need to do to be great in that role and impress the coaches and stick in the NBA. Once a player knows exactly what they’ll be expected to do at the NBA level, I ask, ‘Okay, then what should you be focused on improving while you’re down here in the G League?’ Focus on those things! Not being a high-volume scorer! I’m not trying to make these guys a top scorer or a star, I’m trying to help them become the best role player that they can be so that they can make it in the NBA and transform their reality. I want to help them change their life and be able to provide for their kids and buy that house for Mom. I often tell guys, ‘Don’t get a 10-day, get a 10-year! Don’t just have a cup of coffee in the NBA, eat breakfast, lunch and dinner!’ Preparing guys for that NBA opportunity and then seeing them stick is my favorite part of this job. When you’re helping guys get called up, you’re basically helping them go from the outhouse to the penthouse.”

Coach Cody Toppert

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has made it clear that the NBA views it as a priority that each franchise will have its own affiliate. So far, the list looks like this:

G League teams and their affiliated NBA franchises

  • Austin Spurs - San Antonio Spurs

  • Birmingham Squadron - New Orleans Pelicans

  • Capital City Go-Go - Washington Wizards

  • Cleveland Charge - Cleveland Cavaliers

  • College Park Skyhawks - Atlanta Hawks (Go Hawks!)

  • Delaware Blue Coats - Philadelphia 76ers

  • Fort Wayne Mad Ants - Indiana Pacers

  • Greensboro Swarm - Charlotte Hornets

  • Iowa Wolves - Minnesota Timberwolves

  • Lakeland Magic - Orlando Magic

  • Long Island Nets - Brooklyn Nets

  • Maine Celtics - Boston Celtics

  • Memphis Hustle - Memphis Grizzlies

  • Motor City Cruise - Detroit Pistons

  • Oklahoma City Blue - Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Ontario Clippers - Los Angeles Clippers

  • Raptors 905 - Toronto Raptors

  • Salt Lake City Stars - Utah Jazz

  • Santa Cruz Warriors - Golden State Warriors

  • Sioux Falls Skyforce - Miami Heat

  • South Bay Lakers - Los Angeles Lakers

  • Stockton Kings - Sacramento Kings

  • Westchester Knicks - New York Knickerbockers

  • Windy City Bulls - Chicago Bulls

  • Wisconsin Herd - Milwaukee Bucks

Single affiliation/hybrid model:

  • Grand Rapids Gold - Denver Nuggets

  • Rio Grande Valley Vipers - Houston Rockets

  • Texas Legends - Dallas Mavericks

NBA teams without an exclusive affiliate:

  • Phoenix Suns

  • Portland Trail Blazers

G League teams without an exclusive affiliate:

  • Capitanes de Ciudad de México

  • NBA G League Ignite

The introduction of two-way contracts means that each NBA team can sign two extra players

The players are able to spend 45 days with the NBA team but must spend the remainder of the season with their G League affiliate. 

The result of this is that NBA teams can have 17 players on their roster, whereas the previous maximum was 15. It also gives some of the G League’s best players a sniff of six-figure salaries and they gain invaluable NBA experience. 

“I think it’s great and, to be honest, I’m looking into getting on a two-way contract myself next season. It gives so many guys an opportunity that they may not have had. Throughout the regular season, we saw a lot of the two-way guys play significant minutes and now we’re even seeing a guy like Quinn Cook, who’s a good friend of mine, get key minutes in the playoffs. That’s big, if you ask me. I agree that there are some things that they need to fix when it comes to the two-way deals, but it’s a great option for players.”

Former NBA player and G Leaguer Adonis Thomas

“I love it! Man, they should give me a two-way deal. I need to get one of those.”

Former NBA player and G Leaguer Josh Selby

“I think two-way contracts are great and certainly a step in the right direction. And to be honest with you, I think there were some NBA teams that didn’t quite understand how to use the two-way deals the right way. That’s part of the process, though. Some teams went through a bunch of two-way guys and liked evaluating different players. Others stuck with the same guys. Teams had to choose how to use those days of service too. We had a kid on the Suns, Mike James, who spent the first 45 days up in the NBA and then we knew we’d make a decision on his future with the team [after those 45 days]. Other guys were with the NBA team for the last 45 days. Some teams bounced guys around back and forth as needed. It’s up to each team how they want to use their two-way guys, but I do believe two-way contracts are a good addition to the league.”

Coach Cody Toppert

There seems little doubt that the G League is going to play a continuing, important role in the business of professional basketball

The NBA has shown its commitment to the league and will pour money and resources into it moving forwards.

“As the salaries increase and if the one-and-done rule goes away, the G League will just keep adding talent. It’ll be a lot of fun to see the G League continue to grow and evolve.”

Coach Cody Toppert

And here at The Jump Hub, we could not be more ready for it.

Watch this space…
Image Courtesy of Alamy

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